These Girls Dream Big Despite Hunger, Discrimination And Conflict

06/03/2015 01:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

KUAJOK, SOUTH SUDAN -- The girls at Pariang primary school in South Sudan range in age from 5 to 25 years old. The older pupils study alongside the young, receiving their elementary school education on wooden benches clustered under the few trees that shade the schoolyard. They have fought against the odds to be here, many missing years of education due to the poverty, insecurity and gender discrimination that troubles this young nation.

When South Sudan won independence from Sudan in 2011, girls here were three times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than to complete their primary school education. After decades of war with the government in Sudan, newly independent South Sudan was left with a barely functioning education system. In 2013, a clash between the country's new leaders led to a brutal civil war that has frozen the country's development, including education.

There are only 249 secondary schools in a country of over 11 million people. South Sudan has one of the worst literacy rates in the world -- only 27 percent of adults can read and write. Girls’ education has particularly suffered, compounded by a prevalence of child marriage and traditional resistance to female education. Female literacy is estimated at just 16 percent.

Aid groups and the South Sudanese authorities are trying to reverse the trend with various initiatives, including helping improve school facilities and raise awareness of the importance of girls' organizations. At some schools around the country, girls and their families receive cash and food incentives for female attendance. Most of the female students at Pariang primary school receive a food package each month, supported by humanitarian organization World Vision.

The primary school, located in South Sudan's northwestern state of Warrap, teaches around 200 girls and 500 boys in makeshift outdoor classrooms, where blackboards are propped against tree trunks and school supplies are scarce.

The WorldPost spoke to some of the girls at the school about their challenges getting an education, and how they hoped to use it in the future.

Asunta Adut, 9

sudan

"The best thing about school is the lessons. I like everything about school. My parents are happy I am here. All girls should go to school, so they can be equal with the boys. If I finish education, I want to be a doctor, because I want people to have good health."

Asunta Akuot, 15

sudan

"My parents at first prevented me from attending school. I really wanted to go, and finally I was able to get my uncle’s support. I joined the primary school when I was 10 years old. Now my parents support me too.

When I finish school I want to join UNMISS [the United Nations Mission in South Sudan], because they are training people on how to protect the citizens of South Sudan. If I could join UNMISS I would be able to support my own family, and help the whole population of the country in case more war comes."

Mary Loc, 11

sudan

"My only problem with school is food. Everyone in our school should have free meals. And our meals are not enough. I take mine home and share with my family, which is 10 people, so there is little left. Most days I don't eat breakfast or lunch, and rush home after lessons to see if there is food. Neither of my parents have jobs, they just work on our land. I get hungry at school, and the only way to get through it is to just endure the day.

My wish is to become the governor of Pariang. When I become governor, the first thing I will do is build more schools in Pariang, for girls and boys. Secondly, I will support the population who are vulnerable, and change the way that people work. My parents cultivate their land by hand, working on their knees. I will change that method of farming. Thirdly, I will bring more people to the community to make sure people are supported and that we have good security. The current governor of the state of Warrap is a woman, so why should we not be the future governors of our communities?"

Bakhita Ngok, 10

sudan

"I came to school when I was 7 years old because I wanted to be educated, and also support my community. My favorite subject is religious education. I have lots of friends here and we all want to be educated. Maybe I will join UNMISS in the future. Girls are the same as boys. We need every girl to go to school, because we are the same."

Mary Nyariak, 18

sudan

"I started going to school when I was young, but I had to drop out and spend several years at home because my family didn’t have enough money for school fees. After that I returned to primary school. This year, my parents have started pressuring me to stop school again, because they don’t have enough money for school fees. But I will stay in school even if I need to go and work to pay the school fees myself. If there is no alternative, I will try and get a job as a roadside tea-seller to pay the fees.

If I finish here and join secondary school, I will go to university and become a doctor. I want to help people, especially those who are really sick."

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